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And so it begins . . . again. For decades, system- and component-tuning products have been offered to enhance our listening experience without directly touching the audio signal being reproduced. With computers replacing more and more conventional source components in high-end audio systems, it was inevitable that we’d see products directly aimed at the unique needs of computers. Atomic Audio Labs (AAL) enters the coliseum to do battle with other gladiators trying to survive in a society where the dollars of patrons are as hard to come by as fresh Twinkies or Suzy-Qs.
AAL’s George Chronis got started as a manufacturer of FireWire 800 cables. The concept of the Mac Platform was born, as are so many good ideas, from a coincidence. Chronis placed his Apple Mac Mini computer on his turntable platter and noticed an immediate improvement in the sound. That sent him on a quest for the best combination of materials he could find to boost the sound quality enough to justify his product’s anticipated retail price. The result is the Mac Platform ($349 USD), machined from handpicked 4’ x 8’ sheets of cast clear acrylic.
After being cut and machined, the acrylic is polished until its edges are as clear and smooth as its top and bottom surfaces. But acrylic alone wasn’t enough to do the job; something else was needed to increase the Platform’s mass, so machined into the Mac Platform’s acrylic are a number of cylindrical pockets filled with tightly packed lead shot. Spiked feet also improved the sound quality, so threaded holes for these were added. And that large, pesky plastic disc on the bottom of the Mini was damped with a rubbery, open-weave fabric.
The Mac Mini, with its iconic aluminum unibody, has become my computer of choice for playing music, primarily because Apple’s hardware and OS have, to my ears, an easily audible advantage over those of Windows-based computers (at least as of early 2013). Chronis was so impressed with the results of the Mac Platform that he decided to make larger Platforms, for Mac laptops; they can also be used for other system components. The Mac laptop platforms come in 13” and 15” sizes. General-use platforms are available in 16”, 17”, and 19” sizes. The prices range from $499 to $999.
Normally, a Mac Mini would sit on its raised, circular plastic base, or perhaps on one edge for those short of shelf space. However, the Platform works only when used horizontally; setting a Mac Mini on edge is out. Also, Atomic says that, in their testing, anything placed atop a Mini made the sound worse, so they include no clamp or weight or vibration-absorbing pad for the top of the computer. I tried heavy mass-loading top weights made of lead shot mixed with RTV (silicone rubber, similar to silicone caulk), solid brass, and lignum vitae (a type of wood so dense it sinks in water). Each changed the sound to some extent. I can’t say that any of them made the sound worse, but they didn’t improve it. I ended up following AAL’s advice and placed my Mac on the Platform with nothing atop it.
Using the Mac Platform is simple. Remove the protective paper from the top and bottom and install the three spikes. Two washers are provided for each spike: one nylon, one steel. AAL says the washers can be used to slightly tune the sound. You can change the order in which the washers are stacked, use only one type, or, presumably, try washers made of other materials, such as rubber, stainless steel, aluminum, brass, other plastics, etc. Then place the Platform on a shelf and a Mini on the Platform. Line up the edges of the Mini and Platform and you have a nice-looking base that makes the Mini look at least twice as impressive as when sitting on a shelf by its lonesome. (The Platform has the same dimensions as the Mini: A Mini sitting on a Platform makes the computer look twice as big.)
With an entry-level Mac Mini running $600 and deals being few and far between, it may seem odd to spend half or more of the Mini’s price on something with only ten different parts, none of which move. What you’re paying for is a good bit of R&D, and a precision-made niche product made in quantities small enough that the economies of scale don’t kick in.
I’ve optimized my Mac Mini using some of the tricks I’ve learned from the large numbers of people who experiment with all sorts of things. Most such experiments lead nowhere, but replacing the computer’s stock spinning hard drive with a solid-state drive is one of the more effective ways to improve sound quality. I did that and was happy with the results. For this review, the Mac Platform didn’t even have to deal with the mechanical resonances caused by a spinning hard disk. The other changes would be unlikely to affect the outcome of using the Mac Platform: I’ve upgraded the Mini’s RAM to 8GB, which should make zero difference, but somehow music sounds just a bit better with the RAM maxed out.
AAL describes the improvements made by the Mac Platform: “The bass was tighter, and seems to extend lower. We experienced a clearer and a more coherent midrange. The highs appear to extend with improved clarity and a smooth sweetness. There is now a better sense of time and space around the instruments. The music has a deeper, wider soundstage with a more focused image.” I didn’t find the bass particularly tighter, but there was a better “spread” of bass energy, with less boom and more definition. I didn’t feel that the bass extended lower, but the absence of a bit of previously unnoticed bass resonance made it easier to hear lower and higher bass frequencies played simultaneously.
The midrange did sound cleaner and more coherent. An example: The mandolin has four sets of paired strings, with each pair of strings closer to each other than to the next pair. When you hear a mandolin in concert, you can hear the timing differences between the closer- and farther-spaced strings. But these timing differences often sound homogenized in recordings, so that the two close-together sounds aren’t quite distinct enough. Listening to “The Ghosts That Haunt Me,” the title track of the first Crash Test Dummies album (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Arista), while using the Mac Platform, I found it easier to hear the timing of the closely spaced strings vs. the longer gaps due to the wider spaces. And the sounds of the plucked strings were cleaner, more precise, more present in three-dimensional space than the more 2D sound without the Mac Platform.
While much of the music of Dire Straits is quite well recorded, I’d never thought that “Walk of Life,” from Brothers in Arms (16/44.1 FLAC, Warner Bros.), was particularly spacious. But with the Mac Platform, the sound was clearly more spacious, even if that “spaciousness” was electronically created. There was a nice sparkle, sheen, and distinctness to the sound of each instrument that made this perky song demand my attention, if for no other reason than its sheer clarity. For me, it took this track to a level I hadn’t heard before from any playback method, including Quiex vinyl on a $10,000+ turntable. Both the Crash Test Dummies and Dire Straits albums sounded more spacious, with wider soundstages, which made for more space for each instrument. This effect wasn’t limited to any particular range of frequencies; I heard improvements from the lowest bass to the highest highs. Improvements in the highs came in the form of more detail. A single clear cymbal strike, for example, was just a nice-sounding tshhhhhh without the Platform; with it, there was scintillation within the tshhhhhh, just as you hear in a live, unamplified performance. It’s a less homogenized sound, with more sparkle and variation. Even though the sounds with and without the Mac Platform were tonally identical, the detail within the tone was definitely better with the Platform.
When I got to “Don’t Answer Me,” from the Alan Parsons Project’s Ammonia Avenue (16/44.1 FLAC, Arista/Sony BMG/Legacy), the wall-of-sound effect was bigger and deeper than ever. I can’t say there was the sensation of real space you hear with the better RCA Living Stereo LPs or their digital remasterings, but there was clearly something less restricted about the sound. It was bigger in all directions, and put me inside it with the music. This made “Don’t Answer Me” very attractive -- the track attempts to “play” big, but somehow tends to “feel” a little smaller. The Mac Platform made the song feel larger than I’ve experienced before with any type of playback. The additional clarity the Mac Platform brought was a big benefit for this track’s complex mix, making it sound less smashed-together; each sound was more distinct, leading to an even more impressive wall-of-sound effect. It got me playing that track with some regularity.
Some nice things happened in the upper octaves. Everything, even overbright recordings, had a top end that was more liquid and silky -- not like classic tube sound, where the highs are actually colored to sound more sweet than real life, but the upper octaves were relieved of a little bit of dryness. The Mac Platform also revealed more high-frequency detail than I’ve ever heard from digital playback. In fact, it was so nice on the top end that I suspect that even die-hard digiphobes would admit that, if all digital playback sounded this good, they’d have nothing to complain about.
Comparisons and headphone listening
I tried a number of different footers as substitutes for the Mac Platform, to see if any would equal or approach the Atomic’s beneficial effects: a set of 1”-tall brass cones that cost $10 each when I bought them years ago; Nordost’s machined-aluminum Pulsar Points (around $125/three, now discontinued); and four types of small wood blocks: teak, lignum vitae, cocobolo, and maple. Using these footers, I also tried supporting the Mac Mini under the aluminum portion of its bottom plate instead of the plastic disc.
George Chronis has nothing to worry about. While the Pulsar Points sounded better than nothing, the rest were no better than setting the Mini directly on the shelf, and even the Nordosts lagged behind the Mac Platform by a considerable margin. The Pulsar Points are some of my favorite footers for conventional audio components, but they didn’t do much of their magic with the Mac Mini.
Up to this point, I’d done all of my listening through loudspeakers. Could there still be a benefit from using the Mac Platform for headphone listening? I cued up Ambrosia’s Somewhere I’ve Never Travelled (16/44.1 FLAC, 20th Century) and listened to the short but beautiful “And,” then the first minute of the title track, which follows. I have to say that even headphone listening was better with the Mac Platform in place. Since I can’t detect any sense of width or depth when using headphones, I didn’t detect any changes in spatial quality. But there was a hashy harshness with the Mac Mini sitting directly on the shelf. This was most obvious with vocal sibilants and any instrumental sounds that were heavy on shhhhhh character, like cymbals. With the Mac Platform in use, the harshness was simply gone. In “And,” there’s one pass across the bar chimes (the short, hanging bars that make pretty tones when a striker is gently drawn across them). Without the Mac Platform, it was very difficult to hear the tones of individual bars. With the Platform, each bar made a distinct tone. Details in general, and especially in the upper midrange and above, were easier to hear with the Platform. The degree of improvement was about half of what I hear through speakers, but was still a very euphonic improvement that made late-night listening through headphones better than I’d ever experienced with computer playback.
If you’re using a computer for music playback, you need to treat it as you would any good source component in a well-set-up system. The Mac Platform performed more or less as promised by Atomic Audio Labs, providing a worthwhile increase in sound quality across the entire audioband. While the cost of the Mac Platform may seem high, the cost of the components and accessories of a good high-end system could very well result in the Platform being the least-expensive device in the rack. If you have no trouble hearing differences among cables, power cords, footers, toppers, racks, and different LP or CD masterings, you’ll have no trouble hearing the improvements wrought by the Mac Platform. Now that I’ve experienced it, it’s going to be damn difficult to give it up.
. . . Doug Blackburn
- Speakers -- Vandersteen 3A Signature
- Amplifier -- AudioControl Savoy G3
- Preamplifiers -- AudioControl Maestro M3, NAD M15 HD2
- Sources -- Mac Mini with solid-state drive, 8GB RAM, Western Digital 1.5TB drive in FireWire 800 enclosure; Wavelength Proton USB and AudioQuest DragonFly USB DACs
- Speaker cables -- Audience Au24e biwire
- Interconnects -- AudioQuest Yosemite analog; AudioQuest Diamond USB and Diamond FireWire
- Headphones -- AKG K 702
- Power cords -- Audience Au24e (amp and preamp); AudioQuest NRG-X1.5 (Mac)
- Isolation platform -- Bright Star Audio Big Rock
Atomic Audio Labs Mac Platform
Price: $349 USD.
Warranty: One year parts and labor.
Atomic Audio Labs
5220 Second St. NW
Albuquerque, NM 87107
Phone: (505) 238-3854